Since 2000, people have ostensibly tuned in to "Big Brother" to find out what happens when 16-ish strangers move into a house, have no contact with the outside world, compete in challenges to vote each other out one by one, stop being polite, and start getting real.
At its best, the show has featured a diverse gaggle of Houseguests who use a lethal combination of physical, mental, and social smarts to outlast their competitors week by week. At its worst — which, sadly, is where we're at right now — the minds behind "Big Brother" value young, tanned bodies, illicit hookups in the Have-Not Room, and ridiculously over-produced Diary Room sessions over actual strategic gameplay. And for some reason, the Houseguests being left behind are the show's women.
On "Big Brother"'s divisive 16th season, a cast full of baby hotties led to a season-long bromance that left women out of the game almost entirely. The most notable exception, Christine Brecht, received an appallingly sexist edit that crucified her, a married woman, for cuddling with fan-favorite Jersey bro Cody Calafiore. The woman who lasted longest in the game, Victoria Rafaeli, was essentially the editors' punching bag; a frivolous ditz carried along by Calafiore and his pals as a human meatshield.
Now, in its 18th season, we have Paulie: The absurdly chiseled, openly misogynist bro-dude brother of Cody, who cries when he loses and bullies the cast's women, whether it's gaslighting his "showmance" partner Zakiyah Everette (and bragging about screwing her after effectively ending her chance to win $500k) or berating his competitor Natalie Negrotti for being as fake as her tits.
Allowing an abusive personality like Paulie to not only enter the "Big Brother" house but also dominate CBS' three-nights-per-week summer coverage is appalling, especially since fans tuning in to CBS' live feeds knew about his behavior long before CBS chose to air any of the damning footage. However, "Big Brother" has had issues with its women for years.
Over the past few years, CBS has shown repeatedly that it cares way more about building a season of catchphrase-happy bromances and showmances — please see the recent segment on the "Brenchel Baby" to remember how much this show loves playing "The Bachelor" — than it does the actual nitty gritty of the game of "Big Brother." Occasionally (Nicole Franzel and Hayden Voss, Jeff Schroeder and Jordan Lloyd, Brenchel) these showmances pay off for the viewers and Houseguests themselves, but this year, it's led to initially likable players like Everette and returning Houseguest Franzel being played for fools.
"From a CBS entertainment perspective, I can understand putting these douche-y guys on," "Big Brother 15" winner Andy Herren told Revelist over the phone. "A lot of times they go for a showmance; and CBS is obsessed with showmances … it creates good drama and good storylines for the show, even though they're the worst.
And these are smart women that it’s happening to, but you’re put in this intimate environment where you don’t have any other outside contact, and a hot guy is giving you attention, and I can kind of understand falling for it. It routinely happens season after season."
CBS might value catchphrase-prone bro-dudes and hot summer hookups, but as more and more women get treated like crap by players like Calafiore and his bromance partner (and Franzel's showmance partner) Corey Brooks — who has not only balked at the idea of feminism but also posted homophobic tweets before being cast on the show — it's become very clear that there's a disconnect between the fluffy bro stuff the network is airing and what the show's most dedicated long-term fans, whose voices are heard both on Twitter and by care packages they've voted to send to almost exclusively underdog female Houseguests, yearn to see.
Which begs the question: Can or will the show go back to the halcyon days we fans are yearning for, or are we doomed to multiple more seasons of strong female players being picked off one by one by Califiores, Brookses, and their jealous girlfriends — while said jealous girlfriends idle by waiting their turn?
According to Herren and "Big Brother 16" winner Derrick Levasseur, it's a toss-up.
If CBS wants to relive the "Big Brother" glory days of yesteryear and even the playing field for women, it all starts with re-diversifying its casting.
Earlier seasons of "Big Brother" regularly cast multiple players in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, with an occasional teen and 50-something rounding up the diverse — age-wise, at least — cast, while "Big Brother 10," an easy fan-favorite, featured then 75-year-old Jerry MacDonald.
However, as time and seasons went on, the ages of the casts homogenized — to the point where Season 10's median age was 33.5, while seasons 16, 17, and 18 have median ages of 26.8, 26.3, and 27.8 respectively. (Damn you, Glenn!)
"I got to my season and I was like ‘Dammit, [Casting Director] Robyn [Kass]. Dammit, casting,'" Levasseur told Revelist over the phone. "I was 30 years old, I thought I was going to be one of the young guys, but I was one of the old guys! [...] When you put 20-something-year-old people in there, and they’re all very attractive people, it’s only natural that [showmances] are going to happen."
On the surface, a young and inexperienced cast doesn't seem like a huge deal. After all, anyone with two thumbs and the strength to take insults from a talking robot can technically play "Big Brother." But a diverse range of life experience is what made early seasons of "Big Brother" so fun to watch as absurdly different people found ways to work together.
"The most successful cast in 'Big Brother' history is 'Big Brother 10,' and that cast had many different races, many different ages," Herren added. "That wasn’t a season of women getting jealous, or douche-y bros dominating everything, because they had an accurate representation of people in there. People just acted like people and formed bonds with each other, and it was thrilling to watch. [...]
"Season 3, Danielle Reyes and Jason [Guy] were one of the most powerful secret alliances of all time. Jason was ... this hot young guy who could have easily aligned with the other hot, young guys, but instead he was like ‘Here’s this older Black woman, why don’t I align with her; no one would consider we were working together.’ And it worked! And it’s so thrilling to watch when it does work."
Diversifying casting doesn't just lead to more interesting gameplay, though — it can also directly prevent "douche-y bros" like Corey and Paulie from dominating, and give women a chance to succeed.
As "Big Brother" ages (while its contestants do the opposite), its challenges have become overwhelmingly physical — hence, someone like newly revealed soft bro Victor Arroyo being able to win eight of them and Calafiore five, while the cast's eight women have only won six total as of press time. And Franzel's Head of Household win was a team effort.
Basically, you take an environment where insane physical performance is required to win, cast a shitload of young, muscular bros, and you've created the perfect recipe for what we've seen on and off over the past few years: A dominant alliance (or three) led by dudes, while a gaggle of trusting women tag along and wait to be picked off.
"It doesn’t always dictate who is going to win — but absolutely, some comps benefit one type of person more than the other," Levasseur said, with Herren pointing out that the big dudes who win these comps then naturally band together, both for strategic reasons and since "bro-y, douche-y guys don’t have a lot in common with other people."
For Levasseur, his knack in finding said things in common with other men — and, to his credit, controlling those men like no one else on "Big Brother" before or after — led to a $500,000 deposit in his bank account. But it also led to a pretty shitty summer for the show's women.
"Being a married guy, one thing that I was very keen on was that if I saw a guy that I was close with getting close with another female, it was a threat to me, because I knew at the end of the day most guys are going to choose their girl over their bro," he said, adding that he does not approve of the misogynistic slurs being hurled at the "Big Brother" women this summer, or ever. This led to easy male dominance, since "I know that from what previous female Houseguests have said its sometimes tough for other females to trust females. I don’t know why that is."
Up until now, the prevalence of "bro-y, douche-y" guys running "Big Brother" has primarily kept women from winning. But this year, it's led to outright misogyny and abuse.
I cannot pretend to be an authority on how Calafiore's or Brooks' (or earlier in the season, Frank Eudy's) misogynist tendencies slipped through producers' cracks after the racism and homophobia-fest that was "Big Brother 15," or even begin to understand why women like Franzel and Everette fell so heavily under their spell and turned on strong potential female allies.
But I do think that some combination of the series' growing obsession with young, hot showmances, combined with the aforementioned challenges being skewed to service athletic male competitors, has created an environment in which Calafiore thought it was OK to berate Negrotti for her weight, her breasts, and her sexuality, and to emotionally abuse Everette without consequence of producer interference or a bad edit. And no matter what, we're pretty much all in agreement that seeing women give and take so much abuse has put a major damper on this summer.
"I can only speak for myself when I say towards the end of my stay in the house, the atmosphere felt a little threatening," Houseguest Bridgette Dunning (the feminist) told Bustle via email, after her recent eviction. "Paulie, in particular, did his best to frighten, intimidate, and threaten myself, Natalie, and Michelle [Meyer] … three out of the five women in the house. It was definitely uncomfortable. It may have hurt my game play but I am absolutely proud of the three of us for standing up for ourselves and not backing down. I wouldn’t change anything."
Former Houseguests have also expressed their disproval at the gender politics on BB18, with Janelle Pierzina, Rachel Reilly, McCrae Olson, Herren, and several others all weighing in on everything from Calafiore's behavior to the slut-shaming hurled at Everette and Franzel.
So the question remains: what can "Big Brother" do to try to prevent this from happening next year? Obviously, casting fewer bro-dudes who, if they were named "Chris," could star in a Marvel movie (and as Herren pointed out, if you do cast them, find ones who are able to understand and relate to women) should help even the playing field, and so should including more mental challenges ... or at the very least, physical ones that require more evenly-distributed skills like balance and endurance over speed and strength.
But since "Big Brother" can never truly know exactly who they've cast until the cameras come on and the outside world is tuned out, it's time for them to cut the shit — and more specifically, the increasingly produced Diary Room sessions — and show viewers what's really going on in the house, even if it means showing a fan-favorite player in a poor light or *gasp* exposing a toxic showmance.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, "Big Brother" — please cut the phony DR sessions and heavily manufactured storylines, and stick to airing the golden footage you already have.
A "Big Brother" season that actually focuses on "Big Brother" gameplay would be a much-needed win for all of us. And, as a bonus, relying more on footage of the late night conversations and schemes that make up this game — and less on heavily produced and edited diary room and competition segments — would help us get a better sense of who these players truly are when producers aren't coaxing them to shout nonsense in the DR. (I don't know about you, but I'd take footage of Dunning confronting Brooks and Calafiore over every single veto contestant saying "I walked into the house, and it was a mess!" one after the other.)
"It doesn’t seem real; it doesn’t seem honest," Herren agreed. "I don’t understand why they went for this switch. DRs did not used to be like that … we’re getting 35 minutes dedicated to a veto comp where there’s so much happening they could be showing us. [...] I watch 'Big Brother' for the interesting human interactions. That’s the whole catch of it! When people are up for comps, they’re acting hokey; they’re not acting real. Don’t focus on that so much."
Indeed — if "Big Brother" had aired fewer DRs of Franzel mooning over Brooks (who is totally a human being and not at all an android sent from the future to destroy us all) and more actual footage of Calafiore's relationship with Everette (wonder why THAT got edited out), non-feedster fans would have A) learned much sooner what he's made of and B) seen an accurate depiction of what toxic relationships can look like. Instead, CBS did what it's been doing since the days of Evel Dick Donato and Braden Bacha — it edited out disturbing behavior from male Houseguests, this time cutting in approximately 8 zillion DR sessions an episode to make the Houseguests tell the story CBS wants them to tell.
CBS Entertainment President Glenn Geller, when asked about racism (from Bronte D'Acquisto, towards James Huling) and sexism in the "Big Brother" house this summer at the Television Critics Association press tour in July, defended the show, saying:
“It is a social experiment and they do the best they can to look into people’s backgrounds and see who these people really are. But what’s great about the show, is when you put people together, they become who they are regardless of the cameras, regardless of what’s going on. And, yes, there’s always going to be some tension and some issues, and this year, certainly, they worked themselves out in the house themselves. But that’s what the show is about. It’s an entertainment show. And it really is, again, a social experiment, and I think we see that every summer.”
Which is a fair statement, but CBS can't have it both ways. Does The Eye want a heavily edited, showmance-obsessed "Big Brother" that allows toxic bro-dudes to win comp after comp and run the house, while women get left behind, bullied, or worse? Or — and I hope this is the case — do they want to make a "social experiment" worth watching, and show us what really happens when 16 strangers are together 24/7 with virtually no contact with the outside world?
Because even if the latter won't necessarily ensure a female-friendly season every year, it will make "Big Brother" the groundbreaking appointment TV show it was five years ago. And when the Paulies, Coreys, and Franks return home to watch their own words and actions play out onscreen, maybe it will even make them think a little harder about how they treat the Da'Vonnes, Zakiyahs, Nicoles, and Natalies in their lives in the future.